In the run-up to next year’s general election, UK party leaders will seek inspiration from abroad. Inevitably, it is to the US that they turn first. However, they might be in danger of believing the import of US-style campaigns is easier than it really is.
Recent results around the world have been unpredictable, with no general swing either left or right. Incumbency has been of limited value, but governments with credibility on the economy have shown they can sometimes retain voter trust. This was particularly evident in Germany, where Angela Merkel’s leadership and credibility saw her elected despite the European debt crisis.
With few shining examples of policy for any party, Labour, Tories and Lib Dems will instead try to borrow successful campaign tactics. Indeed, the UK parties have already started the process of drafting in talent from overseas.
Lynton Crosby has been the most high-profile of these hires, with his experience in Australia helping Prime Minister John Howard to win four successive elections, as well as running Boris Johnson’s 2010 Mayoral campaign, making him a strong choice for the Conservatives.
The Liberal Democrats have employed former South African MP Ryan Coetzee, who helped the Democratic Alliance party progress from a 2% share of the vote in 1994 to 17% in 2009, making them the ANC’s nearest competitor party.
But the glamour of Barack Obama means his campaign is the example the other two parties have sought to copy. The Conservatives recently hired Jim Messina, Obama’s White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, while Labour, perhaps stung by the capture of a supposedly natural ally, has announced it will work with David Axelrod, formerly senior adviser to the President.
For a generation of West Wing-loving politicians, the sophistication and glamour represented by these appointments has a value in itself. What they may soon discover, however, is that UK election campaigns lack some of the firepower of those across the Atlantic.
In the United States, political campaigning costs reached £3.8 billion in the 2012 Presidential Elections, compared with the £31 million incurred by the UK political parties in 2010. Even adjusting for population, the sums here are tiny. In the 2010 general election, per person spending in the UK averaged 50p. The 2012 US federal elections figure was £12.
Because British election law limits campaign spending and broadcasting codes limit political advertising, we will not see wholesale import of that model. Instead, the parties are looking to recruit the skills in positioning required to mobilise the party’s base vote, and in forensic targeting of specific parts of the country.
It is this ‘Ohio strategy’ that UK parties hope might carry sufficient winnable seats to get them over the line in another very tight election. Cracking the code to do that may though take more than a flashy transfer from America.